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Saturday, Dec 21 09:10pm
AUTHOR: Simon Chapman

Velocity News Driver of the Year: 10–1

So, here it is. The top 10 in our annual Velocity News Driver of the Year. 

 

So far we've ranked drivers from 50 to 11 with performances locally and abroad. See the links below to catch up on the full run down. 

 

Right now you'll find the best of the best performers of 2019 with the best of New Zealand's overseas drivers. 

 

No more lolly gagging, here's your top drivers of the year. 

 

Andre Heimgartner

 

10. Andre Heimgartner (Up 3)

Categories / Supercars, TCR Australia, Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia

Achievements / 2x Supercars podium, 2x GT World Challenge Asia podium

 

Leafing through the 2019 Supercars end-of-season points tally says almost nothing for just how good a season André Heimgartner had.

 

Down in 16th is where you'll find the Kelly Racing ace's name — one spot ahead of teammate Rick Kelly and one spot ahead of where he ended up last season. Those that followed the season closely know, however, that '16th' wasn't where Heimgartner deserved to end up.

 

For the bulk of the year, he lingered on the edge of the championship top 10 with a surge of momentum in the enduros likely to push the 24-year-old over the threshold. At a time when talk about certain cars having a significant advantage, Heimgartner scored a popular against-the-odds Phillip Island podium (his first solo Supercars podium).

 

A top-10 in the championship surely beckoned, claimed in the most antiquated platform on the grid no less. But sadly fate had other ideas. Supported by Bryce Fullwood (who himself had a breakout rookie co-driver season), Heimgartner spent almost every lap of the Bathurst 1000 in top-five contention. But 'that safety car', a subsequent field jumble, and a lapse of concentration at Forest Elbow ruined what looked set to be a big day.

 

Back-to-back results were also denied on the Gold Coast by two crashes during which they were the innocent party. But, no matter. The important thing that we learned watching Heimgartner in 2019 was that he has what it takes to be a regular, consistent front-runner in Supercars. Another season in BNT V8s over the Summer will keep him sharp (he's swept all the races thus far).

 

Having been equipped with a Ford Mustang next season, there's no reason why he can't fight for wins.

 

 

9. Scott Dixon (Down 9)

Categories / IndyCar Series, IMSA, WEC

Achievements / P4 IndyCar Series, P2 Petit Le Mans

 

Scott Dixon’s IndyCar Series title defence can be summed up in two words; what if?

 

A year that showed plenty of promise, but a cloud still hung over his head. Never before had Dixon gone back-to-back. For some time it looked like that might be a possibility.

 

Dixon started the season strong. Four of the first five races brought podium finishes, though a win went begging.

 

The Indianapolis 500 was one to forget. The Honda power wasn’t enough to compete with the might of Chevrolet and, in the end, Dixon was caught up in a wreck through no fault of his own.

 

Dixon turned a DNF on Saturday at Detroit - his first since 2017 - into victory on Sunday.

 

Texas was another one that went begging. A collision with Colton Herta while challenging for the podium took them both out.

 

A spin at Road America on the first lap threatened to derail his championship bid but saw Dixon do one of his incredible comeback drives to fifth in what was widely regarded as one of the best drives this season.

 

Finally, Dixon got on a streak of success with two podiums at Toronto and Iowa then victory at Mid-Ohio. He followed that up with another podium at Pocono.

 

It looked like Dixon had put the bad stuff behind him. However, his fortunes soon changed. Gremlins at Gateway and Portland while in contention for the win ultimately put him out of the running.

 

Mathematically, Dixon was in with a chance at Laguna Seca, but the likelihood was slim. He finished fourth in the standings. But what if he hadn’t had all those problems?

 

Undoubtedly, if not for the crashes at Detroit and Texas as well as the failures at Gateway and Portland you’d have said he could have won the title. But he finished fourth.

 

What if he’d won the title again? Perhaps he might have been atop of this table. Ultimately, it was an opportunity missed in a year riddled with issues.

 

Mitch Evans

 

8. Mitch Evans (Up 3)

Categories / FIA Formula E

Achievements / P1 Rome E-Prix, P5 FIA Formula E overall


There’s a belief that Formula E is a place where washed-up Formula 1 drivers go once they’ve done their dash.

 

It’s a series clouded by naysayers who are quick to denounce the ‘Scalextric’ series.

 

If that’s the case, then Mitch Evans isn’t doing too badly, beating ex-Formula 1 drivers comfortably and making a pretty penny along the way.

 

Driving for Jaguar racing in his third season, Evans was the best of the rest in fifth place by the season’s end.

 

He was the only driver to score points in the first seven races, culminating in a maiden win at the Rome E-Prix.

 

The winners, Jean-Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas Di Grassi all once were Formula 1 drivers. Robin Frijns nearly made it, twice a reserve driver and regular tester.

 

Evans, meanwhile, never quite made it to the top but was always highly rated. Now he’s found his footing in Formula E where he is undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s highest-paid drivers.

 

In 2019, Evans impressed. In 2020, Evans will need to win.

 

 

7. Marcus Armstrong (Up 2)

Categories / FIA Formula 3 Championship, Toyota Racing Series

Achievements, P2 Formula 3, P2 TRS, NZ Motor Cup winner

 

Much like Scott Dixon, Marcus Armstrong had a year of what-ifs. A year that could’ve seen him crowned a double champion but instead ended up twice runner-up.

 

The spectacular duel between the Ferrari junior and Red Bull Junior-to-be Liam Lawson was an enthralling battle. Armstrong the experienced beaten by a newcomer, albeit in controversial fashion in a last race title decider.

 

It felt, at times, that Armstrong had the measure over Lawson. However, it all boiled down to one pass at the New Zealand Grand Prix hat ultimately ended with Armstrong penalised and put down to second place. Lawson was champ.

 

The newly minted FIA Formula 3 Championship brought a similar expectation. With the highly regarded PREMA Racing outfit it was Armstrong, Robert Shwartzman and Jehan Daruvala who were the pick of the bunch to win it.

 

That they did, battling among themselves while the nine other teams tried to somehow find a leg up.

 

Like the Toyota Racing Series, Armstrong probably should have won the FIA Formula 3 Championship.

 

A cautious start to the season cost him valuable points and just as he looked to be getting into his stride he hit trouble. Challenging for the win with Shwartzman, they collided and spared the team of a possible one-two finish.

 

The penultimate weekend was where it all came undone. A penalty at the end of the first race relegated him to the back. Two non-points scoring finishes effectively put him out of contention.

 

However, he did save some face at the final, winning the opener and claiming second in the final to net second place in the standings.

 

Two titles may have alluded Armstrong, but his talent is undeniable. He’s since been picked up by ART Grand Prix for next year’s FIA Formula 2 Championship, perhaps he’ll shine brightest there.

 

 

6.Shane van Gisbergen (Down 1)

Categories / Supercars Championship

Achievements / P2 Supercars Championship  

 

The first half of 2019 probably didn't quite pan out according to plan for Shane van Gisbergen. Numerous instances of bad luck, car failure, and incident in Supercars followed a somewhat BOP-neutered Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour campaign that had been draped with promise.

 

But it's in seasons like these that drivers show their true strength, and each of these set-backs seemed to breeze by 'SVG' like water off a duck's back.

 

After spending the first half of the year getting pummeled he, his Red Bull Holden squad, and enduro co-driver Garth Tander launched a fantastic fightback (yes, with the aid of a few parity adjustments) to come within a whisker of sweeping the two biggest endurance races of the year.

 

Just seven tenths separated him from Bathurst 1000 glory in a race that was 'problematic' at best, and a freak suspension issue cost him a sure-fire Sandown 500 win. Nevertheless, second place in the title chase was perhaps the best comeback of the season for any Kiwi on the global stage.

 

It wasn't just the Supercars turnaround or the fearless, spellbinding Blancpain GT Challenge Asia drives through the traffic that impressed, either. Van Gisbergen also showed heart and spirit off the track; whether it was in defending Richie Stanaway amid a sea of needless internet negativity, or in stopping his car to come to the aid of Scott McLaughlin's upturned and decimated Ford Mustang on the Gold Coast.

 

And still in the middle of it all he's shown the sort of grace and plain honesty that many other drivers would do well to learn from. Being awarded the 'Best and Fairest' Barry Sheene medal summed it up perfectly, with van Gisbergen's first words on the dias the icing on the cake. “I actually had this conversation last night and the discussion was my chances of winning this are about how I feel right now, written off!”

 

 

5. Liam Lawson (Up 10)

Categories / Toyota Racing Series / Euroformula Open / FIA Formula 3

Achievements / P1 TRS, P1 New Zealand Grand Prix, P2 Euroformula Open

 

When Liam Lawson was announced to join the Toyota Racing Series there was a big question many were asking. Is the kid ready?

 

Two seasons of Formula 4 racing in Australia and Germany had brought some success in 2017 and ‘18, finishing second in the points on both occasions. But against some of the biggest up-and-comers and established names, it felt like Lawson might be a fish out of water even on home soil.

 

He soon proved the doubters wrong, beating compatriot and Ferrari junior Marcus Armstrong, Red Bull-backed Austrian Lucas Auer and a raft of other Formula 1 hopefuls from around the world.

 

He did it convincingly too, winning five from 15 races; the cherry on the top a New Zealand Grand Prix win on debut.

 

The Formula 1 teams came calling with four offers on the table. In a matter of five weekends, he’d managed to earn a contract with Red Bull Racing.

 

After a scintillating start to the season, Lawson struggled to find his footing back in Europe. Wins were forthcoming in Euroformula Open in an ‘easier’ Formula 3 car, but he was out of sorts in the new, heavier and faster FIA Formula 3 car.

 

Perhaps the only real blemish on his report car was his end final finishing position in the FIA Formula 3 Championship. But he ended the season strong, taking podiums at Silverstone and Monza.

 

It’s hard to believe he’s only 17 years old. A year is a long time in the life of a driver and Lawson made the most of those 365 days.

 

 

4. Brendon Hartley (Down 1)

Categories / WEC, IMSA, Formula E

Achievements / WEC wins, IMSA podiums

 

There was a time when Brendon Hartley was contracted to three different organisations; Toyota, Porsche and Ferrari. 


Even after the Formula 1 debacle, Hartley came out the other side stronger and more importantly a man in demand.


A development driver for Porsche, a simulator ace for Ferrari and Toyota’s first choice to replace Fernando Alonso, Hartley had a lot on his plate in 2019.


It’s somewhat ironic then that Hartley didn’t do a hell of a lot of racing this year and hasn’t actually completed a full championship.


The year began with a double-header at Sebring, claiming podiums in the FIA World Endurance Championship and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship across the 1000-mile and 12-hour races. All in one weekend.


Following the conclusion of the 2018-’19 season, Hartley was drafted into the lead TOYOTA GAZOO Racing squad. Already he has a win and two podiums, though the slim LMP1 field makes those results easy pickings.


Hartley may have dropped a place in the standings this year, but he remains a popular choice for many manufacturers and as such must be recognised for that.

 

Earl Bamber

 

3. Earl Bamber (Up 16)

Categories / IMSA, IGTC

Achievements / P1 IMSA GTLM, P3 FIA GT World Cup

 

Last year we noted Earl Bamber’s extreme breadth of racing. This year wasn’t too dissimilar, but success was more forthcoming in and out of the drivers’ seat.

 

The year started with a big win. Leading Porsche’s attack on The Mountain, he and younger brother Will Bamber brought the German marque their first win at the Bathurst 12 Hour via new outfit Earl Bamber Motorsport.

 

While not an effort that saw Bamber steering a car, it’s still a noteworthy mention among his other achievements.

 

The biggest win of all was the GTLM title for Porsche alongside Laurens Vanthoor. Porsche were the dominant force throughout the year, only beaten late in the piece once they’d won the Manufacturers’ Championship. Bamber and Vanthoor were the best throughout, winning at Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Mosport while claiming podiums at Daytona, Lime Rock, Road America and VIR.

 

Bamber was perhaps unlucky elsewhere. An almost certain 24 Hours of Nürburgring win slipped away after a post-race penalty through no fault of Bamber’s dropped he and his teammates to second place overall.

 

Bamber ended the year in style though, Even if he didn’t win, the Kiwi put on a show at the Macau Grand Prix. A fantastic fight to the checkered flag eventually saw Bamber fall just short and relinquish second place in a true showing of sportsmanship after teammate Vanthoor let him through to attack for the win.

 

A brilliant ambassador for New Zealand off the track as well as a brilliant driver on it, Bamber deserves credit for a stellar season.

 

 

2. Scott McLaughlin (No Change)

Categories / Supercars Championship

Achievements / P1 Supercars Championship, Bathurst 1000 win, 18x wins

 

Think about the names that have competed in Supercars and the Australian Touring Car Championship. Streamlined focused juggernauts like Jamie Whincup and Allan Moffat, charismatic racers for the people like Peter Brock and Craig Lowndes, tenacious cage fighters like Greg Murphy and Marcos Ambrose. It's a long and illustrious list, which makes it all the more incredible knowing that none have had a season quite as good as that of Scott McLaughlin.

 

The Kiwi ended 2019 as a Bathurst 1000 champion, a two-time series champion, and (maybe most importantly) a married man. On the track, it was a year that was just as impressive when weighed up in witnessed performances as well as when calculated in the data.

 

McLaughlin's 18 race wins isn't only the new record for the most claimed by a Supercars driver in a single season, but it also sets a new benchmark for any driver in the wider Team Penske fold; placing his name on top of another list of mind-boggling names.

 

McLaughlin's placement as number two on this list of 50 Kiwi racing drivers isn't respective of the controversy and vitriol around what happened at Mount Panorama.

 

McLaughlin had nothing to do with any of those matters, and those who continue to perpetuate that view are doing a disservice to the sport. No, quite simply McLaughlin occupies number two because his talents, his DJR Team Penske personell package, his Ford Mustang all aligned perfectly in that special way that great big achievements in motorsport tend to do.

 

The same can hardly be said of the man that we elected to crown as our 2019 Velocity News Driver of the Year.

 

Nick Cassidy

 

1. Nick Cassidy (Up 3)

Categories / SUPER FORMULA, SUPER GT, DTM

Achievements / P1 SUPER FORMULA, P2 SUPER GT, DTM x SUPER GT race winner

 

Nick Cassidy’s place at the top of these standings shouldn’t be a surprise, at least to some.

 

Now more so than ever before, motorsport is a money game. However, Cassidy remains one of only a few at the elite level who has made it to the top on raw unleashed talent alone.

 

After the double disappointment of finishing runner-up in both SUPER FORMULA and SUPER GT in 2018, Cassidy came back stronger than ever before.

 

Success was immediate, winning in the brand-new Dallara SF19 at Suzuka for TOM’S Racing in SUPER FORMULA. He continued a strong run with points finishes in the first five races, a difficult achievement with points awarded only down to eighth place.

 

Like 2018, the 2019 title fight was a nail biter with Cassidy clinching second place in the final race of the season to take the championship. He was not only the standout in the field but the best Toyota-powered pilot too and by some margin.

 

SUPER FORMULA remains to be one of the hardest championships in the world to win. Outside of Formula 1, it’s the fastest too.

 

Noteworthy were his efforts in SUPER GT as well. Cassidy and teammate Ryo Hirakawa came on strong midway through the season and ultimately put themselves in contention right until the end only to finish runner-up for a second year in a row.

 

The championship should’ve been theirs too if not for a dubious and controversial pit stop under Full Course Caution for eventual Fuji 500 winners Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita who went on to win the title.

 

Ultimately, if there’s one element to boil it down to, it’s Cassidy’s solo performances.

 

Winning the SUPER FORMULA series put Cassidy firmly on the Formula 1 radar with rumours of a test. Who with though remained unclear. His ties to Red Bull made Toro Rosso a logical conclusion, but their Honda power and Cassidy’s Toyota ties made that possibility slim.

 

Cassidy ended 2019 the way he started, putting on a dominant performance, but this time against the best SUPER GT and DTM drivers at Fuji Speedway. Taking pole position, fastest lap and a commanding win against the best in the business.

 

Scott McLaughlin may have won a championship and reset records along the way, but Cassidy made a real statement, one that reaches further afield and has made many stand up and take notice.

 

Cassidy is one of our best drivers of the modern era, a supreme talent deserving of recognition that he definitely doesn’t get at home.

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